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England's defence found wanting Posted over 2 years ago

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Coaches love to talk about the work that certain players do off the ball, but more often than not they are talking about attack, about the winger “looking for work.” Even more crucial is the work that players do off the ball in defence. England lost in Paris on Saturday because their defensive running off the ball was so very poor.

Danny Care vastly needs to improve his work off the ball and defensive reading of the game. When Huget scored France’s opening try Care was too high and not working hard enough in his crossfield running. When Care plays there is often a hole behind England’s front line defence and it was a gap that France exploited. Note that Australia did exactly the same to England when Care was scrum-half in the Autumn international in 2012.

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Not that Care was solely to blame for the first try. Jonny May, who had covered deep on the first phase, was pulled up when France recycled. He lost track of Huget on the wide outside and was caught ball watching. In American football wide receivers get bumped on the line of scrimmage to break up the offensive pattern. May wasn’t able to bump Huget because he was in a world of his own.

France’s second try was another defensive shambles. Care was again unable to help out when the break was made because he was ambling instead of covering hard. If he had put in a few hard yards Care could have cleaned up the mess. That is not how Will Genia defends. With rookie wings on the pitch for England followed by a back three re-shuffle, Care really had to help out more.

But again Care was not the sole scapegoat for the second try. Alex Goode, who is a very poor tackler, got too high up the pitch and couldn’t adjust his feet to stop Huget by the touchline. Goode did then track back, but so did Nowell from the right wing.

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When the chip came, the two men were going for the same ball, almost touching hands when it bounced back over their head. It betrayed a lack of pitch awareness, of where the attackers and defenders were in relation to each other. If one had stayed higher to the defenders, he may have beaten Huget to the bouncing ball.

Not that France were blameless. They could have defended England’s opening try if Picamoles had not rushed up and forced the issue. It is usually better to buy a fraction of a second in such desperate situations. But the try that put England ahead in the second half was a shambles.

Was it a planned move or did Owen Farrell adjust well to Billy Twelvetrees’ mistimed run and play in Billy Vunipola? Either way the new French 10 Plisson showed his naivety. By rushing up out of the line, Plisson was already beyond Vunipola when Farrell held back the pass.

But the situation could still have been salvaged if Bastareaud had not been ball watching. France’s centre was ambling back and watching Vunipola. Bastareaud had a line to defend the situation, but his lack of defensive work and lack of vision off the ball allowed Burrell to glide past and score under the posts. There is no way Conrad Smith, as good an off the ball defender as you will see, would have made such a mistake.

Wesley Fofana also showed Bastareaud a trick a few minutes later. When Farrell made a break, the game was dead if England’s fly-half could have found a man on his outside shoulder. But Fofana had bumped Burrell into adjusting his line to the inside and the chance was gone.

France’s final try again exposed England’s shortcomings on the scramble defence. When Fofana straightened the line and played the ball so quickly out of the tackle, England’s defence had not worked hard enough to recover. Replacement scrum-half Dixon was at half pace sweeping across. Barritt should have worked harder in order not to expose Launchbury on the outside. Burrell should have held longer and not made up Szarzewski’s mind for him.

Lines of running, hard work and vision are keys to a good cover defence. You need to know where your teammates are in attack, but player awareness is just as crucial in defence. Too often England were caught ball watching and not working hard enough. France were burned once, but England’s covering frailty came back to haunt them.

Where did you think the game in Paris was won and lost? Comments below…

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Mark Reason has been a sports journalist for over 25 years. He currently works for Fairfax Media and will also be part of the Telegraph's World Cup team and a regular panellist on Radio New Zealand during the World Cup. He has covered every Rugby World Cup since 1991, the 2000 and 2008 Olympics, over 40 golf major championships, the FA Cup final, the Epsom Derby and a lot of other stuff he can't remember. Mark emigrated to New Zealand in 2010 having spent over 20 years covering sport for the Telegraph and Sunday Times in Britain.

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